Berbatov no substitute for Rooney when going gets tough


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The Independent Online

It is a measure of how far Stoke City have come under Peter Coates and Tony Pulis that one reaction to yesterday's Carling Cup fourth-round draw, which pitted them against Liverpool, is that the Potters are the more likely to field a weakened team due to European commitments.

Another indication of their current stature was yesterday's teamsheet; it can be assumed that a couple of years ago Matthew Upson and Wilson Palacios did not anticipate being among Stoke's substitutes at this stage of their careers. Not that there is any shame in that – Stoke have become a formidable side, well managed and generously funded.

This, then, was a hard-won point for the champions, one that most visitors would settle for on this ground. The reason it was received so rapturously by the raucous home support is that until yesterday Manchester United had been the only elite team to resist the Potters.

Since Stoke returned to the top flight every other leading club had dropped points after torrid matches here. United had won three out of three (with a matching record at Old Trafford). No one should be surprised by this. While Sir Alex Ferguson has always sent out teams with width and a desire to entertain, their starting point is an absolute commitment to compete. The present team may not have such intimidating figures as Roy Keane, Paul Ince, Steve Bruce and Mark Hughes, but even in the absence of the nearest contemporary equivalent, Nemanja Vidic,they do not roll over.

And that is the basic requirement at the Britannia. It was ever thus. While the club's last golden era, under Tony Waddington three decades ago, is fondly remembered for the likes of Gordon Banks, George Eastham and Alan Hudson, the old Victoria Ground was not for the faint-hearted. Even when Hudson was delighting neutrals the likes of Denis Smith and Alan Bloor were leaving opponents battered and bruised. In one case Smith, getting his retaliation in first, laid out Derek Dougan from the kick-off.

Thanks to law changes and the all-seeing eye of television the game is much cleaner now, but Pulis's Stoke are cut from similar cloth. Perhaps the area, which was mining as well as china country (the Britannia is builton an old coal and iron mine), demands it.

Within the first 10 minutes Jon Walters had tested Phil Jones's mettle, jumping into the youngster, and Glenn Whelan had clattered Patrice Evra. United's medical staff were already busy assessing the damage to Javier Hernandez after Jonathan Woodgate had pushed him over and into Asmir Begovic.

That should have been a penalty and a red card, but from these opening exchanges only Whelan was cautioned. United brushed themselves down and got on with it. Nani's goal, a silky slalom through Stoke's defence, was a wonderful riposte.

Yet as United struggled to turn possession into chances, let alone goals, it was increasingly apparent that the languid nonchalance of Dimitar Berbatov was no substitute for the bustling appetite of Wayne Rooney, and United entered the break with only Nani's goal to show for their superiority.

In a match like this, with the home side down at the break but invigorated by the manager's half-time oratory and the urgings of a passionate crowd, the opening 10 minutes of the second half are akin to the first few overs with a new ball on flat wicket. It was just as United had seemed to survive this period that Peter Crouch levelled.

Stoke, who it should be said have far more than menace and muscle, sought a famous victory. It was not to be, but they have now erased the only blank on their Premier League tally. It is oft said, primarily in jest, "How would Messi cope at Stoke?" If the club keep progressing,the question may cease tobe facetious.